Sambo and Mammy used to scare me. I learned about them in school whenever it was time to study Jim Crow and Reconstruction. These black-skinned characters, with their big lips and goofy expressions, were stereotypes of black people, used in entertainment and literature to show how dumb and happy we were to be in servitude to the smarter, more powerful white folks.
Growing up in southern Virginia, I’d find these happy dancing Negroes in nearly every great-grandma’s or great-auntie’s house. I’d see those perpetually smiling faces everywhere in the form of mini-sculptures, framed posters or even dolls resting on nightstands. Their wide-toothed smiles, framed in thick red sausage lips, seemed painted on, like they were meant to cover the pain and humiliation of being treated like property. Their wide eyes, set in pitch-black skin, hid the sinister secret of the cruelty of their white masters, and the dehumanization and violence they witnessed every day.
These images made me feel nervous, scared and angry. Mostly, they made me feel sad ― sad that they were created in the first place and were used in popular culture to make racists feel at ease. I felt that same sadness on Tuesday night as I watched President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.
I watched as he paraded two sets of parents of color before his viewing audience. Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas, and Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens each lost a child. Their daughters, two best friends named Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, were murdered on New York’s Long Island in 2017 by members of MS-13, a multiracial gang that originated in Los Angeles. I watched those parents cry in grief over the loss of their children as Trump explained that he was going to close the “loopholes” in our laws that allow rapists, murderers and job stealers to illegally enter the country. I listened as Trump appealed to the nation’s collective sadness and fear to introduce a discriminatory immigration policy thinly veiled as “concern for America’s children.”
And I was afraid again.
I was afraid to see history repeating itself. Once again, a white person in power was using black and brown bodies to bolster his own racism. Trump was taking advantage of these people and their grief to support his agenda. He was parading two grieving families in an attempt to convince Americans ― particularly Latino and black people ― that immigrants are dangerous. Once again, brown people were being used as props to perpetuate an American lie.
By using the Latino parents of Latino kids to go after their Latino murderers and thereby go after all Latinos who want to come to this country, Trump effectively absolves himself and his administration of any suspicion of racism. It’s a tactic that’s been used before. If black police officers think Black Lives Matter is a racist organization, it can’t be true that police officers discriminate against black people. If Trump cares so much about these Latino families, it can’t be true that he is a racist president advocating racist policies.
Trump has proved time and time again that he does not care about black and brown people, or their children. He proved it when he levied discriminatory housing policies against black people and families who sought to rent in his properties. He proved it when he took out a full-page ad calling for the death penalty for five black and brown boys who turned out to be innocent. He proved it again on the campaign trail when he called Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, and again in the White House when he called Haiti and African nations “shithole countries.” Donald Trump is a racist. In his State of the Union, he used a classic tool of racism ― the minority endorsement of white cruelty ― to support his racist agenda.
If people like Trump continue to speak for our pain, they’ll kill us and say we enjoyed it.
The same man who stood at that lectern and consoled these parents for their loss boasts his own gang of supporters who’ve threatened and killed people, emboldened by Trump’s white supremacy masked as patriotism. This audience of majority white legislators and Trump supporters clapped, and that support for the parents will be used as cover for the legislation that will discriminate against people who share their skin tone.
Those grieving parents aren’t bad people for choosing to go to the State of the Union or for wanting the people who murdered their children to be brought to justice. They deserve justice for their daughters, they deserve to have their concerns about gang violence heard by a competent leader and they deserve peace. They deserve elected officials who will protect their children. They do not deserve to have their sadness weaponized to justify discrimination against people who look just like them.
The strategies of racial oppression used in the creation of Sambo and Mammy are still being used today. Our president is reintroducing these same tactics from Jim Crow to continue to spread hate and covert racist rhetoric. Trump and his allies parading us around as props, using our suffering to drum up support for their bigotry, is a mistake. Black and brown people should never be used as props to persecute other minority groups, or their own people. To paraphrase writer Zora Neale Hurston, if people like Trump continue to speak for our pain, they’ll kill us and say we enjoyed it.
I never understood why my aunties kept those racist caricatures on display in their homes. Now I do. Sambo and Mammy are a part of our history. They’re not meant to scare us or anger us; they’re meant to teach us, to warn us about how some white people will use people of color to support their supremacy.